Football recruiting focuses on more than just football

By John Van Winkle
Academy Public Affairs

            Throwing a touchdown to an Olympic gold medalist and carrying the football for the President were just a taste of the opportunities unveiled to football recruits and their parents here, before National Signing Day.
            While many schools focus on what a football recruit can do on the athletic field and the possibility of playing professional football after graduation, the Academy gave the recruits and families the whole picture. That whole Academy picture includes athletics at the Division I level, academics at the Ivy League level, and 100 percent employment upon graduation.
            To bring that message home, Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, Academy Superintendent, spoke with the football recruits and parents.
            “We are only as good an Air Force as the people who come in.  The same is true of football, basketball, we’re only as good as the people we bring in,” said General Gould, a 1976 Air Force Academy graduate.
            The general was one of those recruits in the early 70s.  He started his career as a football recruit from Kent, Ohio, and opened up to this year’s football recruits to share a little bit of his past, to illustrate the opportunities awaiting the recruits at the Academy and beyond.
            “It’s an opportunity to do something important with their lives that you do not get at other schools,” said the General.  “If you go to another school, that’s when the real work begins -- when you try to find work after graduation. What we’re doing for you is guaranteeing you a job doing some really cool stuff.”
For General Gould, one of those unique job opportunities came during the early 1980s, when he was assigned to the Academy as a T-41 flight instructor and head football coach at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School.
“That was an unbelievable dream come true,” he said, and then told the tale of the wide receiver who was so fast, the opposing team was lucky to catch a glimpse of him and had no hope of actually catching him.
The General was playing quarterback for the prep school’s intramural football team, and one of his wide receivers was a class of 1983 grad by the name of Alonzo Babers. Unknown to his intramural competitors, Babers was a two-time NCAA All-American who held – and still holds – the Academy record in the 400- meter, 300-yard and 500-yard dashes.
It was during the prototypical smack talk that the challenge was laid down.
“I told them, ‘you can’t catch my wide receiver,’” the General told the recruits with a grin. “They said, ‘we’ll see about that.’”
In the huddle, the general told Babers to go deep. At the snap, Babers took off, burned a path downfield and outdistanced the defenders  Then-Captain Gould completed the pass to him for an easy touchdown.
Thus the other team learned about Babers’ speed the hard way – not that they weren’t warned.
After breaking the sound barrier a few more times in intramural football, Babers later went on to the 1984 Summer Olympics, where he won gold medals in the 400 meter dash, and the 4x400 meter relay. He then reported back to the Academy, and went on to an Air Force flying career for several years before continuing his flying career with United Airlines.
Then-Captain Gould also moved on with his career, going through several more promotions, aircraft and assignments. He told the recruits about another of those assignments, which took him to The White House. As senior Air Force aide to the President, the former high school quarterback carried a different type of football at the right hand of The President, traveling with the first President Bush across six continents.
            “This is not about me,” said General Gould, “but this little quarterback from Kent, Ohio, never would have had the opportunities to do all this if it wasn’t for the commitment I had at the Academy.”
            “I want you to look hard at what the opportunity here is, and all the questions you can think of.”
            Recruits were paired with a freshman cadet for their weekend visit, to see the Academy up close and personal.
 “I want you to ask them about the good things about the Academy, and I want you to ask them about the challenges here as well.  You’ve got to get every question answered.  Hammer them.  Find out what its like to go through the first year at the Academy,” said head football coach Troy Calhoun, a 1989 Air Force Academy graduate.
            Coach Calhoun took the time to speak with each family member and prospect individually, putting a personal touch on the visit, catching up with those he had met before and thanking all for visiting the Academy.  To the entire group of parents and prospects, he spoke about several aspects of the visit and the Academy, introduced his coaching staff in great detail and spoke about the recent successes of Falcon Football.
While there’s good-natured debate as to which team was the best football team in Academy history – the 12-1 team from 1985 that Coach Calhoun was a freshman on that beat Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl, or the 12-1 team from 1998 that whipped Washington in the O’ahu Bowl --  Calhoun told the recruits that they can end that debate once and for all by joining the program and working toward an undefeated season and cracking a BCS bowl.
 Looking at the Falcons’ track record since Calhoun became the head football coach, a winning season and bowl bids are again in the Falcons’ grasp for the 2010 season as Calhoun’s Falcons have ranked in the top four in the conference every year and will look to crack into the top three. TCU, BYU and Utah have had a stranglehold on the top three spots in the MWC in recent years and the Falcons will look to make that trio a foursome. Under Calhoun, the Falcons bounced back from three losing seasons and a combined 13-21 record to go 9-4, 8-5 and 8-5, face several nationally-ranked teams and make three straight bowl appearances. Mountain West Conference teams have already appeared in three BCS bowls. Utah beat Pittsburgh in 2005 and No. 4 Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl to cap an undefeated season. Last season, fourth-ranked TCU completed an undefeated regular season and then fell to sixth-ranked Boise State in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl.  Both teams are MWC powers, and only made their BCS bowl games after narrow wins over Air Force during those years.
            But the Falcons’ goals for success go beyond the football field.
            “One of the things we pride ourselves on here is our success on the football field.  The other thing we pride ourselves on is the academic success,” said Coach Charlton Warren, recruiting coordinator and secondary coach, and a graduate of the Academy’s Class of 1999.
The Air Force Academy has a 90 percent graduation rate among football players over the last 10 years. In 2009, the NCAA’s Division I Academic Progress Report ranked the Academy as second in the nation, behind only Stanford, and just ahead of Duke, Rutgers and Rice.
“We are here to make sure these young men graduate,” Coach Warren told the recruits and parents.  “Other schools look at an 80 percent graduation rate as successful.  But not me.  If we bring in 25 guys into this next freshman class, and we graduate only 80 percent of them, then we’ve lost four or five guys along the way.  That’s not success in my book.”
Coach Warren spoke of the keys behind that academic success, including instructors who travel with the team, and balance.
“The key is balance, in order to compete in athletics at the Division I level and academics at the Ivy League level.  You’ve got to be diligent in your work ethics, but once you get the hang of it, you’re set,” he said.
What happens after the Academy was also a subject of focus.  Coaches weren’t promising multi-million dollar contracts for future first-round NFL picks.  In reality, the NFL draft only calls to a fraction of college football players.
            “We’re recruiting you hard here, and once you graduate from the Academy, it starts all over,” said Coach Warren.  The Fortune 500 companies are recruiting you hard. Character-wise, an Academy graduate brings something special to their company, character-wise, as well as dependability and good work ethics.”
“So there’s a job awaiting you after graduation, if you put the lighting bolts on your helmet.  If you go someplace else, I can’t guarantee it.”
            One parent posed the question of injuries negating a scholarship. At some schools, a traumatic enough injury can negate a scholarship, ending a player’s athletic and academic future.
            “Not here,” replied Coach Warren.  “We make a 4-5 year commitment to you when you decide to come here,” he said, counting a possible year of prep school in that commitment.  “An injury doesn’t take that away.  If you get injured, we get you treated and work with you to rehabilitate that injury, and get you back on the playing field.  But if you can’t come back, we’ll still make sure you graduate.  We don’t cut our kids loose because they get hurt.”
            As to what that the recruits thoughts were on to the doors that would open to them if they come to the Academy, interviews were not available for this story, because of NCAA rules.
            Likewise, the Academy cannot release names of recruited student athletes (nor are they available for interviews), until they report to the Academy this summer, due to the Academy appointment process.  The recruits themselves are free to disclose that information as they deem fit.  This has led to several sports media outlets to report that Academy’s 2010 football commitments as being 35 players strong, counting both those who will go to the Academy Prep School as well as those who will join the class – but not counting graduates of this year’s Prep School class.
Air Force coaches and administrators are not allowed to comment about recruits due to NCAA rules and the Academy’s appointment process, therefore head football coach Troy Calhoun is not available to discuss any specifics about recruits.
Many high school student-athletes will participate in signing days and appear to sign a National Letter of Intent with the Air Force Academy, but they are actually signing a Certificate of Intent which is a non-binding agreement that signifies an athlete's commitment to follow through with the appointment process and allows them to participate in signing day for publicity purposes. The Academy is a non-scholarship institution and doesn't use the National Letter of Intent, as most civilian schools do.
"Our recruiting process was very thorough and comprehensive,” said coach Calhoun.  “We were very selective and pinpointed some key individuals and spent a great deal of time with them. Leadership is the most vital thing we are looking for. We looked hard to find young people that we feel will become great leaders for our Air Force. We want to find guys that are going to fit in and excel here.”
            But Coach Calhoun and the majority of his coaching staff are now entering their fourth year leading Falcon Football, so there are several current players here who have been through this recruiting process and are bonafide members of the ‘been there, done that’ club, like sophomore defensive back Anthony Wright, Jr.
            Wright was quarterback for Maple Heights High School in Cleveland, when the Academy entered the picture in the form of former linebackers coach Brian Knorr, during the May of Wright’s junior year at Maple Heights.  
            Coach Knorr kept in contact, as did other schools. Wright was recruited in his senior year by Buffalo, Ball State, and Ohio, as well as the Air Force Academy.
“Come August, I still wasn’t too high on Air Force because I didn’t know how to deal with the military aspect,” recalled Wright.  “I liked the coaches, and everything they had to offer, but I thought the military life wasn’t for me, so it took me a while to make my decision.”
Wright ended up committing to Ball State.  But then he decommitted to Ball State, and selected the Academy, and attended the Air Force Academy Preparatory School in 2007.
During his freshman season in 2008, Wright played in all 13 games and started 10, racking up 32 unassisted tackles, two forced fumbles, one tackle for loss and an interception.  During the 2009 season, Wright had 54 tackles, seven of the Falcons’ 20 interceptions, one fumble recovery, and scored three TDs.
The key that made Wright select the Academy and thus wreak havoc on opposing offenses was the opportunities that the Academy offered, and a visit to USAFA to see the Academy up close and personal.
 “I was with my dad and we just enjoyed everything they have, from the campus to the facilities to the education.  As far as the interactions with the coaches, it was second to none.  I felt at home.  My dad felt I’d be like a second home to me for the next four or five years,” said Wright.  “Once I got home, we sat down and outlined the pros and cons of Ball State versus Air Force, and in the end Air Force was a better fit for me not only right now, but in the future.
            The future beyond football was also a draw for fellow sophomore Jonathan Warzeka.
            A high school quarterback and safety for the Temescal Canyon Titans in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Warzeka was playing in the virtual back yard of the San Diego State University Aztecs, just 62 miles up I-15 from Qualcomm Stadium, where the Aztecs host home football games.
            “During my junior year, they were really interested in me attending there,” said Warzeka. “San Diego State was my first choice during my junior year. It was close to home, I had a lot of friends that went there, I love San Diego, and it just seemed a good fit at the time.”
            During April of the same year, Coach Warren saw Warzeka play at a camp, and he liked what he saw.  Now Air Force was in the running.
“I got a lot more interest from other schools, but it really just came down to Air Force and Navy, those were the only ones who really offered me anything,” said Warzeka.
He got along well with both coaching staffs, and both schools had the quality academics and opportunities after graduation to make the military training, academic rigors, Saturday Morning Inspections, and calling minutes as a doolie worth it.  It came down to Air Force being a shorter distance from home, and the Mountain West Conference.
“I liked that Air Force is in a conference, instead of Navy being an independent. You have that conference championship to play for,” Warzeka added. “And actually playing in Qualcomm was a dream come true, during my freshman year.”
Warzeka returns to Qualcomm this fall in what will be a home game for him, even though it’s technically an away game when the Academy plays San Diego State.
In Warzeka’s two seasons he has played in 25 games.  Warzeka’s versatility gives the Falcons some options. He finished the season with 48 rushes for 267 yards and two touchdowns, had 18 receptions for 246 yards and one touchdown, as well as showing his QB skills with a 16-yard touchdown pass. As if he needs to do more, he added 12 kickoff returns for 335 yards, including a 100-yard touchdown return in the Falcon’s 47-20 bowl game destruction of Houston.
Despite the bowl win, there’s little downtime for Falcon Football. For the coaching staff,  Warzeka, Wright and the rest of the Fighting Falcon football team, it’s time for spring football.  Spring football practice started Feb. 18 and continues through March 17.  Barring a change for weather or other Academy events, practice days are Feb. 23, 24, 25 and 27, and March 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17.  Saturday practice day times are to be announced, while weekday practices will begin at 3:30 p.m. All practices will take place on the practice fields behind the Cadet Field House or at Falcon Stadium depending on field conditions.

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